Losing the I in iTunes

When I was younger, I had a CD collection of which I was proud. We’re talking 1000+ albums. Yet after spending 15 years acquiring them, I moved across the country, to an apartment in which furniture like the sofa, the desk, the dining table only just fit. The CDs were going under the bed, and the case my dad had built was not coming with me.

And so began a project that lasted many nights after work: converting the content into MP3 files. When you undertake a project requiring that much effort, there is little point in half measures. In my case, that meant perfecting the metadata that automatically downloaded each time I slotted in a new disc. Artists and titles were, for example, only starting suggestions: they needed to be recast to sort by surname or without definite articles.

Still, applying those rules was easy; after all, there were rules. (Mostly. There were always exceptions. Does an act like Le Tigre fall under L or T?) It was genre classification that required the real thought, and I was fastidious, ending up with a taxonomy that had around sixty entries. Perhaps paradoxically, Alternative and Indie emerged as separate top-level categories, with twelve under the one, and eight under the other.

Subjectivity is always present in cataloging, and that may be especially true for something as personal and diverse in features as music. Tagging on music-focussed social websites, on which users can assign multiple and idiosyncratic genres to the same song, suggests this. In a sample retrieved from last.fm, for instance, Chen, Wright and Nejdl found “[o]n average, each track is associated with 29.9 tags” (2009). For my library, I could only choose one, and I wanted it to be right. Beyond pure organisation, my aim was enabling smarter playlist creation, and for a long time that was a useful approach.

But then came streaming. In particular, then came the ability to add content to my library, some of which I didn’t own, using multiple devices, some of which didn’t offer interfaces to read (much less amend) the files’ attributes. As iTunes morphed into Apple Music, and the separation between what I possessed and what I used blurred, the meticulousness of my data management began to slip. Slowly, over time, my music library was assimilated.

That has partly happened because of laziness. Although the single point of entry workflow is obsolete, the ability to refine the details after the fact still exists. But, at the same time, the details matter less now. Searching is richer, reducing the need for alphabetisation. For its part, playlist generation happens by pressing a button. Instead of aggregating songs I have somewhat reductively dubbed as Electronic/Italo-disco, I can rely on the ‘genius’ in the cloud, who isn’t limited to my personal collection, but has access to a catalog encompassing much of the music ever recorded.

As the intelligence on which we rely becomes increasingly artificial, information specialists will have to grapple with more complicated questions of how classification happens and what role subjectivity can or should play. Indeed, the Web 2.0 approach to genre assignment, studied in 2009, may already be obsolete. According to Panwar, et al, “[n]owadays precice [sic] tagging retrieval mechanisms are provided by deep feature extrating [sic] and learning methods. They attemp [sic] to understand almost all information inside a music from local to temporal features” (2017). That is more than a human can do. Indeed, Chen, et al., cite Weare, recounting “Microsoft required the assistance of 30 musicologists over a period of one year in order to manually label a ‘few hundred thousand songs.'” To the extent they don’t already, such approaches must surely apply to textual and other documents.

There’s a limit to how much one can realistically let go, though. Despite what iTunes said when I downloaded Oumou Sangaré’s most recent album, Africa is definitely not a genre.

No, every now and again, a person to take a stand.


Chen, L., Wright, P. and Nejdl, W. (2009) ‘Improving music genre classification using collaborative tagging data’, ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining, Barcelona, Spain, 09-12 February 2009, viewed 9 October 2017, https://0-dl-acm-org.wam.city.ac.uk/citation.cfm?id=1498812 .

Panwar, S., Das, A., Roopaei, M. and Rad, P. (2017) ‘A deep learning approach for mapping music genres’, System of Systems Engineering Conference (SoSE), Waikoloa, HI, USA, 18-21 June 2017, viewed 9 October 2017, http://0-ieeexplore.ieee.org.wam.city.ac.uk/document/7994970/ .


4 thoughts on “Losing the I in iTunes”

  1. Intelligent and innovative approach to the concepts of the ‘i’ and of ‘assimilation’ which we have considered in our class INM348 DITA so far this term. It is worth considering that although algorithmic support for genre analysis is essential if we are to be able to understand the whole of music, if that phrase even makes sense, at the current time there are still some things that humans do more quickly and easily. I have read similar things about image recognition. Whether this will always be the case is something I feel is unlikely, given the speed at which technological developments are moving forward.

    There is then the question of desirability. I like to organise my digital world myself – the world according to lyn. My rationale has always been that the act of subjective organisation of the objects which signify and represent the world, helps me understand them and their wider context. My physical arrangement of books reminds me of what there is to know about a topic for example. But this takes time, and the algorithm works faster. As long as we have something to listen to, do we care what is served up to us by mistake, what is lost or missed? Is there so much information now (books, music, art etc.) that absolute accuracy of classification no longer matters – is good enough, actually good enough?


    1. I agree that the question about whether good enough is good enough is an important one. The irony here, and I tried to restrain myself from going on too much (despite exceeding the word ‘limit’ by 50%), is that when the CDs were purely physical, they were arranged in alphabetic order with no regard to other demographics whatsoever. So it was digitisation that made the problem of categorisation an issue in the first place; previously, it may have existed in my head, but given that it wasn’t documented, and thus didn’t have to fit a one-category rubric, it was undefined. And now, at least in this case, it seems like the assimilation into a cloud-based service has caused the nature of the problem to change.

      So I guess what I’m getting at is the physical existence of objects imposes limits that the digital realm doesn’t, and thus materiality makes a difference in what we even perceive to be the issues around content management.


  2. Like your comment about ‘the separation between what I possessed and what I used blurred’. There are so many hidden agendas behind playlists tho. Music publishing is all to do with royalties.


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